I remember reading Thurgood Marshall’s comment of sitting in his first day of law school and hearing Charles Hamilton Houston tell the class “Look at the man on your right, took at the man on your left, and at this time next year, two of you won’t be here.”  This was an extreme version of the Harvard Law School (HLS) model of “Look to your left, look to your right, because one of you won’t be here by the end of the year.” Of course law schools, even Harvard Law School, no longer takes this extreme approach to teaching law school.  Now, it is a matter of doing well as an undergraduate, doing well on the LSAT, and having the funds to go to law school.  Law School administrations determined some time ago that raising the bar to get into law school creates an environment where there is no longer a need to dismiss one-third or two-thirds of your students in order to have graduates ready to enter the profession.  Not only that, but let’s face it, if law schools kicked out a third of its students most of them would go out of business.
When I read Toby’s post from yesterday on hiring the ‘C’ students, it got me to thinking about the type of first-year associates that firms hire and whether we should bring back the old HLS model for first years.  Imagine the situation where on the first day of starting a firm the associates were told by the Managing Partner that a third of you will not be here this time next year.  That would be a scary thought for most associates, perhaps preventing many from even taking a job with a firm if they knew that they might be cut after a year. It might, however, be the best thing that a law firm could do.  It could also open opportunities for graduates that would never be on a law firm’s radar. Perhaps the firm refers to this first year as a ‘clerkship’ thus creating a way for even those that get laid off to spin this as ‘experience’ rather than not making the cut at a firm.
My thoughts behind implementing the HLS system in first-year associate hires would go something like this:

  1. Cut your current associate wages by at least one-third.
  2. Hire one-third more associates than you planned. (This could get you some of those ‘C’ students that Toby mentioned.)
  3. Assign the associates to a group of partners that will mentor and monitor them throughout the first year.
  4. Set specific goals for the first year’s.  The goals should surround all facets of law firm life… traditional legal work (hours or projects worked), training (both mandatory and voluntary), research and writing skills, and pro-bono work, just to name a few.
  5. All first year attorneys would be ‘staff attorneys’, and would not be called ‘associates’, or put on ‘partnership’ track until after they make the cut at the end of the first year.  
  6. At the end of the first year, make a decision on who stays and who goes.
This is a harsh system, but one that would give more law school graduates a chance at not only landing a job right out of school, but would expose more potential associates to the firm, including some of those ‘C’ students that would have never been looked at before.  By letting the first year associates know that they are on a one-year probationary period, then they know they have to make an impression that first year or they will be finding themselves looking elsewhere.  Perhaps there would still be room for them as staff attorneys and not associates, or perhaps you just send them along their little way to seek employment elsewhere with a full year’s worth of experience and training that they may not have gotten anywhere else. In the end, the firm should have a better level of second year associates through the attrition of those that just didn’t match up to their competition.